By Carlie Kollath Wells/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The no-frills exterior of Nails City belies the bustling business inside.
Women of various ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds drop in the West Main shop to get their nails done.
Clients include everyone from cashiers at the Dodge’s store across the street to the mayor’s wife to the owner of Room to Room Furniture.
They chat about school, football, work and their families while they get their feet massaged and their nails buffed to perfection.
It’s not the kind of salon where customers silently read magazines.
“This is the best place,” said Sara Leasy, a Tupelo customer who last week left with toenails painted a bright pink shade called Purple Panic.
Norma Searcy was on the other side of the shop getting a mani-pedi in Cajun Shrimp, a pale orange color.
The Oxford resident was in town for Grandparents Day at Lawndale Elementary School and stopped in to get her nails spruced up before spending time with her grandson.
“The service is good,” she said. “The people are really friendly.”
Searcy, along with other customers, also commented about how clean the salon is.
Owner Long Nguyen sipped his venti black coffee from Starbucks as he surveyed the scene.
He’s worked hard to create the jovial atmosphere.
“You have to make it feel like family,” he said. “You have to make customers feel comfortable.”
He even installed a kid-sized pedicure station so when customers like Angelica Westbrook come in with their kids, little 3-year-old Ja-Niya can get her nails done like her mom.
He’s eager to give credit to his loyal customers for making his shop feel like the United Nations for the women of Tupelo.
“They promote my business a lot,” he said. “Our biggest customer base is hair stylists and people who work in the hospital.”
Nguyen immigrated from Vietnam in 1992 to pursue better career and educational opportunities.
He was 21 and didn’t speak any English when he moved in with his aunts in Shannon.
His first job was busing tables at China Capital.
He worked two to three jobs at a time, including stints as a night stocker at Walmart and a forklift driver.
He also worked at a hair salon, where he made a lot of connections that later helped him with the nail shop.
“I tried everything,” he said.
He took an English-as-a-second-language class at Itawamba Community College and learned all he could. He’s now fluent in English, but his loyal customers, like Jo Ann Box, whose husband owns Danver’s, still joke with him.
“Long went through the drive-through at Danver’s and ordered a roast beef with Swiss cheese,” she said. “They gave him a roast beef with sweet tea. Long and I laugh about that.”
Added Nguyen, “That’s my Vietnamese accent.”
Nguyen left Tupelo for a few years to learn the nail business.
He also learned about American football, which still is a passion for him. His nail station is decorated with stickers of his favorite team, the Tennessee Titans.
He returned to Tupelo and opened Nails City in 2004.
The nail salon has 10 full-time employees who keep the pedicure and manicure stations in constant rotation.
Employees include his sister, Ly, and his brother-in-law, Hung, or Henry as he’s known to customers.
They do nails Monday through Saturday and close Sunday to deep clean the shop, go to church and go to Memphis to get Asian groceries.
Plus, Nguyen and his wife, Katie, have their 15-year-old son enrolled at Tupelo High School and are helping him pursue his goal of going to a military academy.
Nguyen said it’s a difficult business for nail technicians because the model is based on walk-in customers. They have to be at the shop when it’s busy and when it’s not, he said.
“It’s hard,” he said. “You have to build up, build up. … The first day I opened the salon, I had one manicure.”
Now, his technicians do about 10 pedicures each on a busy Friday or Saturday.
He also said it’s important to be invested in the community and to pay attention to what’s going on. He sponsors sporting events and donates to charitable activities.
“You have to know the community,” he said.